How to honor the cuisines of the world without exploiting them
I’ve grown increasingly uncomfortable with chefs who represent the cuisines of cultures other than their own, even though their food is good. What is the limit between representation and appropriation? honor the kitchens and operate the kitchens; and how not to be canceled as a white woman who wants to cook delicacies from another part of the world?
– Chief Instructor, Portland, Ore.
I don’t believe chefs should stay strictly in their cultural lane when cooking. My ancestry is Ashkenazi Jewish, but I don’t think that gives me a genetic predisposition to cook superior gefilte fish. I trained in classic French cuisine and cooked in Japan, so I’m very comfortable with these flavors (although the first to admit that I’m not an expert in either cuisine).
Likewise, some of the best cooks in French and Italian cuisine in the United States that I know come from the United States, Mexico and Central America. Many haven’t even traveled outside of North America, but you wouldn’t know that from their dishes.
The problem tends to arise when a chef in a position of power and privilege “adopts” another culture’s cuisine and benefits from it, presenting himself as an expert without having devoted time to it (or, in the parlance of industry, “paid its dues”) to truly understand the nuances of cuisine and its culture, which are inextricably linked. Appropriating a kitchen not only benefits the chef in power, but minimizes the hard work and worth of the people who laid the foundation for that chef’s success – the countless cooks, restaurateurs, food writers, cookbook authors, artisans and home cooks who nurtured, preserved and elevated these culinary traditions for the chef to sell.
So how do you cook the cultural culinary traditions of others without disrespecting the kitchen and its actors? It’s a question Chief Clara Park has given a lot of thought to. Park says, “On the surface, chefs can and are encouraged to cook food from other cuisines, but more specifically to learn about other cuisines. But it must be done in a respectful manner. Immerse yourself in the culture. All power dynamics come into play when others are not recognized.
For this, here are some guidelines to be an ambassador of a kitchen, even close to your heritage:
- Study. Familiarize yourself deeply with the history, culture, cuisine and language of the region.
- Travel. Spend as much time as possible cooking, eating, visiting and talking to local people.
- Share the credit. Honor the cooks, farmers, and craftsmen you learned from and share the credit as well as the profits.
- If you have any questions, ask. Nobody can be an expert in everything, even if you work with a kitchen of your own heritage. If you have an obstacle or a question, ask for help; don’t assume you’re right.
Park says, “A perfect litmus test of whether you’re respectful of another culture’s food [is] would you be comfortable serving food in a room full of grandmothers from that culture? Judging by some of the so-called experts I’ve seen, mine wouldn’t approve.
More information on the cultural appropriation of cooking here.